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Dancing Africa, Making Diaspora


Dancing Africa, Making Diaspora concerns the industry of West African dance in the United States. Considering the relationship between dance, diaspora, and belonging, Dancing Africa works to reveal the power of dance in shaping participants' individual and collective identities through the premise of African connectedness. In other words, this dissertation considers West African dance as a meaning-making practice. Through the study of multiple West African dance and drum contexts - a Broadway show, dance classes in one Californian community center, a dance "homecoming" workshop in Guinea - it interrogates the ways everyday people (those typically excluded by the field's privileging of textual archives) conceptualize, embody, and make use of the African diaspora. Ultimately, this dissertation shows how dance links the symbolic and physical dimensions of diaspora: the imaginative work that fosters diasporic connectedness and the physical movement through and across space that has, and continues to, yield variegated African diasporic communities.

This dissertation examines U.S. evocations of Africanness through West African dance in an effort to raise and answer questions about the performative capabilities of West African dance and to investigate the processes by which African diasporic communities are shaped because of and through this dance form. Based largely on ethnographic observations and interviews with West African dance participants, Dancing Africa, Making Diaspora shows how West African dance influences how participants understand what the African diaspora is, and how they see their own raced and gendered bodies in relation to it. This project reveals the bearing that West African dance has on participants' lives by asking the following questions: In what ways did diaspora play a role in the career of West African dance as a formal practice in the US? Why do people take part in West African dance and what "work" does it do for them? How does gender and nationality affect one's positioning in these various communities? And finally, how has the commodification of the form impacted meanings of diaspora, blackness, and Africanness? Dancing Africa reveals the operations through which this dance economy both widens the circle of African diasporic "we" and continues to police its ever-shifting boundaries of belonging.

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